The doors to Chef Derek Stevens’ highly-anticipated Union Standard restaurant have opened to the public after a long, tantalizing wait.
The restaurant is one of the hallmarks of the $100 million renovation to downtown’s Union Trust Building, which has been ongoing since the building was purchased for development in 2014.
Stevens is no stranger to the Pittsburgh food scene. He worked with the Big Burrito Restaurant Group for over 15 years, leading the kitchen as executive chef at both Casbah and Eleven. Before deciding to go out on his own, Stevens had been with Eleven for almost a decade.
The menu at Union Standard focuses on wholesome food, and features primarily ingredients that are locally-sourced. Roasted meats and vegetables are a menu highlight, as the kitchen boasts a wood-fired grill and rotisserie. Other interesting dishes include Cider-steamed Clams, Smoked Blue Fish with onion, dill, cucumber and potato bread, and a Roasted Beet dish with citrus and pears in a black pepper molasses. In addition, the restaurant has a raw bar, serving crab, shrimp, clams, and oysters from coast to coast.
The modern, bright interior design was a collaboration between Stevens, his business partner Christine Grady, and Lawrenceville-based Moss Architects. The space features two levels, with seating for 170. The first level is multi-tiered, separating bar and dining space, with the top floor offering more seating with areas for private dining and corporate meetings.
Between arranging the space and prepping ingredients, Chef Stevens snuck away to discuss the opening, and the blossoming food scene in Pittsburgh.
Congratulations on the opening. Is there one thing you’re most excited for tonight?
I’m very happy to be in the kitchen again. It’s been a long road. Working in the kitchen is what I have always done. Being outside of that element for a while has been a little weird. I am excited to hear a lot of people in the space, music, and people having fun. I always enjoy the sound of a busy restaurant, where people are having fun.
This is a beautiful space. Did you have a hand in the concept?
Yes, myself and my business partner Christine worked really closely with Moss Architects in Lawrenceville. We designed everything with Moss’s guidance.
Is there one thing that you knew you wanted in this space?
We have a wood fired rotisserie and grill. That was something I was really excited about.
Were you excited about being downtown?
Yes, absolutely. My experience at Eleven was just on the edge of downtown, and downtown is growing so much and so quickly. I really wanted to be here. From being so close to downtown before, it feels like a lot of my customers eat downtown.
How would you describe the restaurant in your own words?
How long do you have? Truthfully, who knows what it is, or what it will be? I do know that I want it to be a place where people can walk in dressed down, not feel out of place, but still get the level of food and drink you would get at a more formal place.
Do you want it to be a drop -in, “Oh, we’re downtown, where should we eat?” type of place?
Yes, definitely, that’s why we have a large bar area. I want it to be a place that is reliable for tasty, quality food. I think because this space is broken up the way it is, you have the opportunity to have a variety of experiences. You could come here with your lawyers for lunch, you could go to the bar before a Penguins game, or you could have grandma’s 90th birthday upstairs. We tried to position it in a way where there could be many different experiences.
Could you talk about the menu a little bit?
I think the focus here is a lot of simple foods, and regionally sourced foods, with simple preparations.
Same with the bar and drinks?
Yes, very much. Jen Parks is our beverage director. We gave her some guidance of what we wanted and she hit it out of the park. There is such a great cocktail list. It is creative, but not too goofy or funky or trendy or weird. Simple classic cocktails and some updated classics. We also tried to be simple and classics with the names, nothing you feel like an idiot ordering.
Is there one dish that you’re most excited about, or relate to this process?
I would say the roasted chicken. We went through a lot of effort to source the wood fired grill, where the chickens are from, and what woodchips we are using. I want there to be a comforting, wholesome aspect to the food. I would like that, and I want to make food I would eat.
Where did the idea of the raw bar come into play?
I wanted the bar to be interactive, exciting, and delicious.
Do you have a food memory, or dish from your career, that really stands out?
Yes, years and years ago, maybe in 1999, I was working at the Wine Spectator Greystone Restaurant in Saint Helena, California. I was a cook. It was a school, and as an employee you could take classes if you could fit it into your work schedule. I took two classes, and one of them was with Jean-Louis Palladin who is a legendary French chef, working in the 80s at the Watergate Hotel. He was an absolute icon. I was in the garden across the street, holding my apron, and he was picking baby eggplants and filling my apron with the. I was just like, “What is happening? Where am I?” Not too long after that he passed away, so it is a really nice memory. I remember spending some days in the kitchen with him because he was so passionate, but all over the place.
One of the people that the passion just comes off of them?
Yes, yes, exactly.
In terms of Pittsburgh, how have you found the food community here?
My California experience was in the late 90s, and I was cooking in Pittsburgh years before that, so I’ve been here for a long time. It has been cool to see where things are, and I feel like I, at least in some way, have been a part of the growth.
Another thing I think about a lot is that this is a major step for me. From all of the acquaintances, colleagues, and friends I have in the restaurant community, I was able to invite them to coffee and ask for advice. I was confused what to do, if I should leave Eleven and start something new. There were a lot of chefs and restaurant cohorts who I was able to have conversations with, and they helped me out. It was nice to have supportive people, and have it not feel competitive.
I have talked to people who have just moved to Pittsburgh for food, and they say it feels like a place where people are rooting for them to succeed, not to fail.
Yes, it is true, and it is funny. For a while when I was debating Union Standard, no matter what I did, I had to work in secrecy. Every step of the way, the circle of people who knew what I was doing got bigger and bigger. When I finally gave notice at Big Burrito, they didn’t know and I was so surprised. I figured somebody would have said something along the line, but they didn’t. It was really touching to me that people were looking out for me.
The Union Standard is open Tuesday – Thursday, 5:00-10:00 PM, and Friday & Saturday, 5:00 – 11:00 PM. Lunch and brunch will be available in the future. Reservations can be made over the phone (412-281-0738), or by using the reservation app Resy.
Union Standard (542 William Penn Place)
Madeline Quigley is a writer living in Pittsburgh. She runs the travel and adventure website The Gal-Ivanter.